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Beach and ocean litter

You're at your favourite beach wiggling your feet in the sand, sifting a handful of shells to look at, and listening to the seagulls' plaintive cries. Ouch! You slice your toe on a broken beer bottle. Yuk! There are more cigarette butts and lolly wrappers than shells in your hand. Oh no! That seagull sounds distressed - its head is stuck in a beer six-pack holder.

You can't believe there's so much junk on the beach. Not only is it an eyesore but it's harming animals. How does it get there? You wonder what you can do about it.

Rubbish

It's not a pretty picture, is it? Australia's beautiful beaches are being marred by more and more rubbish.

It's not only heavily-used beaches which are affected. A 1991 survey of 26 remote Great Barrier Reef islands found 5656 items of rubbish. Among the plastic, glass and metal debris were 725 glass bottles, 1066 plastic fragments, 247 aluminium cans and plastic cups, 919 thongs and one bar fridge.

There is a lot of junk floating around out there! Not only is garbage unsightly in otherwise unspoilt environments and a hazard to ships and to divers, it also poses a real threat to wildlife.

Rubbish kills!

Plastics which generally make up about 60 percent of rubbish are the worst offenders. An estimated 100 000 marine mammals and turtles are killed by plastic litter every year around the world.

With seven billion tonnes of debris entering the world's oceans annually, most of it long-lasting plastic, there's a lot of potential for harm to our birds and marine mammals. Turtles, fish, birds, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals have all fallen victim to plastic.

Fishing line, netting, rope, bait box packaging bands and so on trap and strangle animals. Large marine animals such as seals and dolphins can starve to death when muzzled by plastic litter.

Plastic is also eaten. A dead pygmy sperm whale found on a New South Wales beach had a plug of plastic bags in its gut. Presumably these items were mistaken for squid, the sperm whale's main food. A sperm whale found dead on a North American beach was discovered to have starved to death because a plastic gallon bottle which it had swallowed had plugged its small intestine. The animal was full of plastic material ranging from other plastic bottles to 12m of nylon rope.

Plastic bags on the ocean floor take 10-20 years to decompose. Plastic bottles take much longer. Because of this, one piece can kill more than one animal. An animal killed by swallowing plastic will decompose long before the plastic does, leaving the plastic free to kill again.

The disposal of plastics into the sea is prohibited under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known as MARPOL). The disposal of all other types of garbage (including metals, glass and food) is prohibited within 12 nautical miles of nearest land including most of the Great Barrier Reef. The law provides for fines of up to $1 million for companies and $200,000 for individuals illegally discharging garbage at sea.

Culprits are everywhere

While much of the litter on remote islands and beaches comes from marine sources, a survey of shoreline litter around Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne found that at least half of it came from the land.

While some had been left on the beach, much had originated as street litter and been washed down to the sea along stormwater drains.

Careless garbage and recycling collection and poor landfill management have been blamed for some of this, particularly windblown plastic bags.

However, responsibility also lies with those people who do not realise or care that stormwater drains are not rubbish receptacles and that materials discarded into them, whether plastic litter or dumped oil, flows to the sea.

And some people also point out most of us use too much packaging, especially non-biodegradable plastics. Products are wrapped in several layers of plastic; even small purchases are put in plastic carry bags.

What you can do

Remember that stormwater drains flow straight to our waterways. Don't throw any litter in the street or gutter because it might end up in the ocean or on the beach.

If you go fishing, make sure you take all your rubbish home with you. That means all your bait bags and lunch wrappers and cans as well as any snagged line and worn-out gear like old nets.

Don't wash your car or do a grease and oil change on the road or driveway because the detergent and oil will wash down the stormwater drain and flow into the ocean untreated, poisoning marine animals and plants.

Create less rubbish in the first place. Don't buy products that are 'overpackaged'—wrapped in individual packs or several layers of plastic. Buy products in biodegradable packaging. Re-use your plastic shopping bags, or take cloth ones to the shops.

Tell your friends and family—or anyone you see littering—about the dangers of rubbish to marine animals and encourage them to do the right thing with litter.

If you see stranded marine animals—injured, sick or dead—call the RSPCA Qld.

Join a Coastcare group. As part of a team you can do even more to look after your coastline. Plenty of environmental projects need to be done. The more people helping the more can be achieved.

(Sources: Marine Debris and Litter Coastcare factsheet undated. Tropical Topics - An interpretative newsletter for tour operators Department of Environment. Our Sea, Our Future: Major findings of the State of the Marine Environment Report for Australia Compiled by Leon P. Zann of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for Department of Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra 1995.)

Last reviewed
30 October 2015
Last updated
31 August 2011